For some of us the memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis is found only in the back of textbooks or movie theater screens, placed before Woodstock but after McCarthyism in the mind’s historical timeline. For others, the memory of those long, tense, days in October feel far more real than any documentary or Kevin Costner movie.
And like any good historical event turned movie, the crisis came equipped with a clear conflict, climax, and resolution, all in the span of a dramatic 13 days.
However, David Coleman’s recent book, "The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis" uses secretly recorded White House tapes to show that the threat loomed for far longer than the public may have realized.
The date that we think of as the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in our historical narrative, is the day that Krushchev said he would remove the nuclear missiles. But, "the Soviets had said things before that were not true," Coleman says. "So there were very real fears amongst Kennedy and his advisers that perhaps this was just part of some big trick." It also was not just a matter of nuclear missiles — there were a number of other highly dangerous nuclear weapons in Cuba.
Kennedy did not disregard either of these risks. Throughout the aftermath of the crisis, the army continued to mobilize as though an invasion would be going ahead, and there was some talk of air strikes against the bombers in Cuba.
"Kennedy liked to keep his options open, and that's something that comes through very clearly on the tapes. But he was getting a lot of advice, particularly from military chiefs, that 'we need to take very forceful action here,'" Coleman says. "Kennedy was pushing those back, but he wasn't rebuffing them completely… He was keeping open the option that even though he was implementing the blockade, that that might be followed up a few days later — if necessary — by military strikes."
If there were a nuclear crisis today, things would be a bit different. "The rate of decisions would have to be accelerated. Back in 1962, Kennedy had the luxury of finding out about these missiles on October 16th, but not going public until October 22nd." In today's 24-hour news cycle, and with Twitter and the blogosphere, President Obama would not have the same luxury.